By Jukka Jouhki

On an earlier visit to Chennai, I interviewed slum dwellers about how they relate to voting, elections and politics in general (read more about it here). Since I was intrigued by the fact that the poor in India are the most enthusiastic voters, one question I asked them was “What is a good politician like?” 

I was a bit surprised when at first, the most common response was something along the lines of “there is no such thing as a good politician”, or “all politicians are fools.” However, when I asked them to elaborate, many softened a bit and described how a good politician would “not be very corrupt”, and how he would “keep only 75 % of the [public] funds to himself, and give the rest to his people”.

I wasn’t sure how much irony there was in these statements. But when I asked further, most people eventually said that a good politician should have an “understanding of the needs of his people”. He would ensure there was enough clean water, proper drainage, decent roads, and affordable meals for the poor. In more audacious scenarios wished for by slum dwellers, good politicians would provide quality education for their children and steady jobs for themselves.

A political party's poster in a Tamil Nadu town (source).

I was also surprised that honesty did not seem to be an essential quality of a good politician. During elections, a politician in Chennai – like in most democracies of the world – might make unrealistic if not fairy-tale like promises to voters in the slums. I was told that a candidate might claim to arrange a government job for a potential voter’s family or a university seat for each youngster of the family if he were to be elected. On a grander scale, he might promise to rid the state of its chronic drought by connecting the major rivers of Tamil Nadu. Both politicians and voters knew that these promises would never come true, but were instead part of an elaborate election-time ritual.

This kind of exaggeration was not held against the politician. A good politician could even lie if he only remained accessible to people after being elected. More important than honesty was the possibility that a citizen-voter could seek help from the politician in times of trouble – which usually meant that the citizen-voter had encountered a bureaucratic snag and needed the politician to smooth the way for him or her.

The third surprise was that a good politician did not need to have lofty moral motives. When I asked my interviewees what kinds of people they thought wanted to become politicians in the first place, they answered: “the selfish people”, “the rowdies”, “the business-minded” or “the ones who already have money and want more of it”. Politics, to many, seemed like just another way of doing business, a lucrative career choice with benefits. Politics was not about helping people or working towards common ideological goals on behalf of the public good. As an interviewee told me, “if you want to do good things for people, you don’t become a politician. You join an NGO.” Thus accusing a politician of putting money first was like blaming a gardener for wanting his trees to bear fruit.

Supporters of DMDK, the 3rd biggest party in Tamil Nadu (source).

Many of my interviewees said they hated politics but that they would still like to become politicians themselves. As a young man said, “it would be the only way to bring benefits to my family.” Indeed, joining a political party was for many uneducated people one of the few ways to advance economically. If they could become affiliated with a party organization, even peripherally, then they might not have to spend as much money bribing officials because they were “people of the party”. They might also receive an informal job in the party organization. Also, party affiliates were usually rewarded in cash and in kind for their loyalty during elections.

No one in Chennai could tell me the ideological differences between the two major political parties DMK and AIADMK. Their names even mean almost the same thing, both referring to the progress of the people. They seemed more like competing patronage networks (see e.g. Piliavsky ed. 2014) than political parties. However, when it came to the party leaders, my interviewees’ tone often changed to admiration and awe. For example, Jayalalithaa, the state prime minister, was different than a minor politician. She was indeed a “good” politician.

Jayalalithaa – or “Amma” (the Mother) – is a former film star who used her popularity to serve her political career. She is revered as an almost omnipotent guardian of the people. Her pictures are everywhere – from government-subsidized cement sacks and bags of salt to party-distributed freebies such as table fans and school kids’ backpacks, reminding people of her benevolence. People even name their children after her, and she blesses all poor people with her five-rupee lunch scheme.

Jayalalithaa's picture on the street (source).

To be sure, “Amma” does not deny herself the material benefits of her position. According to the New York Times Magazine, when Jayalalithaa was accused of having "disproportionate assets" (= misusing public funds) in 2015, she couldn’t explain the extra 660 million rupees (approx. 9 million euros) she possessed, and when her house was searched by the police, they recorded “10,500 saris, 750 pairs of shoes and 66 pounds of gold”.

But like benevolent kings and queens whose wealth equals their morality in Indian tales, it is understood that big political leaders must be rich to provide for their people. They must also be strong in their leadership. Party leaders were actually the only good politicians my interviewees mentioned. They hoped that one day the lesser politicians would be as good as their leaders.

Below: Prime minister M. G. Ramachandran and 
present prime minister Jayalalithaa before their political careers.